Travels on the Somme Part One – The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing

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Earlier in the year the family Baldrick, along with yours truly and the missus, took a trip down to Amiens to spend a few days exploring the battlefields of the Somme.

Back in April I posted a handful of photographs of our adventures, and this post begins an occasional series which will show you some of the places we visited in a bit more detail.  Time constraints meant I had to choose carefully the places I most wanted to see; by the end of the trip many of my objectives had been achieved, along with a considerable number of unexpected twists and turns, which tend, thankfully, to occur on our expeditions.

Now, this website is primarily a website that shows you round the British cemeteries and memorials in Flanders (yeah, you know that), and quite frankly I have neither the time nor inclination to re-tell the story of the Battle of the Somme.  Books and websites do that admirably.  Suffice to say that by the end of the first day of the battle the British had suffered nearly 60,000 casualties, with almost 20,000 of these killed.  Few of the first day objectives had been attained, and the stage was set for a further four and a half months of bloodshed before the onset of winter ended the offensive.

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So, there are no tours of cemeteries to be found among these posts; many photos, yes, but no tours, and the explanations will probably not be as detailed as they are during our Flanders trips, but I’ll give you enough to ensure you know what you are looking at.

Trust me.  I think you’ll find it interesting.

Somme

The Somme battlefield can be split, for touring purposes, into two halves; to the north and south of the road which runs dead straight in a north easterly direction from Albert to Bapaume, a distance of about eight miles.  Three miles north of Albert the road runs through La Boiselle and then Pozieres (in the bottom right corner of the above map), and a couple of miles to the north, in the centre of the map, you can see the village of Thiepval, and it is fitting that our tour begins here.  This 1916 trench map shows the German trench system in red, with the British trenches denoted as a single blue line.

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In the months preceding the battle the Germans had turned the village of Thiepval, as they had many other villages on the Somme, into a veritable fortress.  On this map only the German trenches are marked (for reasons of security), and you can see clearly how extensive the German front line trench system around Thiepval had become by the summer of 1916.  On the first day of the battle the British made virtually no headway to the north of the road (although they had some successes to the south) and Thiepval, one of the British objectives on 1st July, would not finally be taken until September.

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The massive Thiepval Memorial, the Menin Gate of the Somme, where some 72,000 officers and men of the British and South African armies killed in this area prior to 20th March 1918 and who have no know grave are remembered;  Australian, Canadian, Newfoundland and New Zealand missing are remembered on other memorials elsewhere.  The Thiepval Memorial stands on the position of the German front line trenches as they were on 1st July 1916, a few hundred yards south west of Thiepval village (below).

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We approach the village from the south east across ground that was just behind the German front lines in July 1916 – you can see this road clearly marked on both trench maps.

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Nice new visitor centre and Baldrick Jnr.

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The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing of the Somme…

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…and Thiepval Anglo-French Cemetery.

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It’s a few minutes walk from the visitor centre to the memorial…

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…and I promise you…

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…that photographs fail to do justice to the immensity of the place.

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Of the more than 72,000 officers and men whose names are inscribed on the memorial panels that enclose the sixteen huge pillars, ninety percent were killed between July and November 1916.  And every single one of them is either missing, or buried in the dozens of cemeteries on the Somme under a headstone with the simple inscription ‘Known Unto God’.

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Before we look at the memorial itself in more detail, however…

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…I think we shall pay the cemetery a visit first.

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During the winter of 1931 it was decided to create, at the foot of the as-yet unveiled Thiepval Memorial, a cemetery containing 600 French and British burials to commemorate the joint sacrifice of both nations in their endeavours on the Somme.

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Only 47 of the 300 graves in the French cemetery are identified.

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Of the 300 British graves, 239 are unidentified, although you will notice a great many graves where, although the soldiers’ names are unknown, their regiment has been identified (below).

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The first of a handful of photos that I stole from Mrs. Baldrick.  She’ll want royalties now.

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Cross of Sacrifice at the western end of the cemetery.  The Cross bears the inscription: ‘That the world may remember the common sacrifice of two and a half million dead, here have been laid side-by-side soldiers of France and of the British Empire in eternal comradeship’.

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Baldrick and myself standing next to the Cross on the site of one of the German front line trenches, the land across which the British attacked on the morning of 1st July just beyond us.  The men of the Northumberland Fusiliers (Newcastle Commercials) and Lancashire Fusiliers (Salford Pals) were slaughtered by the German machine guns as they tried to attack up the rise to where we are standing on that day.  Not one of them reached the German trenches.

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This view looks from the German front line towards the British positions away to the west.  Thiepval Wood, stretching away down the slope to the right of the picture, was the scene of fierce fighting and in recent years the trench systems within the wood have been the subject of much excavation and archaeological research.

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Here’s the Thiepval Anglo-French Cemetery Plan, courtesy of the CWGC.

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Another of yours, I think, Mrs B?  Nice photo.

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All of the men buried here were found between December 1931 and March 1932, many on the Somme battlefields…

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…but more than a few were found much further afield,…

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…some as far north as the killing fields of Loos, others on the 1918 battlefields south east of Villers-Bretonneux.

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And another, I think.  The 858 South African names to be found inscribed on the memorial are all on Pier 4 Face 3, partly visible on the right of the photo above.

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Time to have a look around the memorial itself.

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Addenda panels.

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Visitor’s book.

A shot I should have taken but failed to do, so thank you again to Mrs. Baldrick, or maybe Baldrick himself, for the use of this photo.

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Stone of Remembrance.

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Above the panels with their thousands of names, laurel wreaths are inscribed with the names of the battlefields where these men died.

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The memorial was unveiled on 1st August 1932 by the Prince of Wales and new French President Albert Lebrun (Lebrun, by the way, was still President at the time of the Nazi invasion in 1940).  As well as remembering the British missing, it also serves, like the cemetery, as an Anglo-French memorial recognizing the joint effort that was the Battle of the Somme.

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Over the years the actual number of names has fluctuated as names are added – you have already seen the two large addenda panels – or removed, as the occasional identifiable body is found, even in modern times.

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‘Here are recorded names of officers and men of the British armies who fell on the Somme battlefields July 1915 February 1918 but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death’.

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There’s a CWGC plan of the actual memorial that you can view by clicking here.

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Photographer at work.

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So many names.

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So, so many.

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This view looks east, back towards the way we came in.  Note the 18th Division Memorial in the middle distance.  I didn’t take a photo of that either, but there is an identical one on the Menin Road, which you can view here.  The 18th Division participated in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge on the 26th September 1916 when much of the village was finally taken.

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Stone of Remembrance.

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The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

At this point, the others headed back to the car (exit stage right).  Me, I had other plans.  If we turn to our left, and look along the ridge away to the south…

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…you see that clump of trees in the distance?  I know what that is, or at least was, and I think it may be worth a visit while we’re here.

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So with a glance back at the memorial…

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…I suggest we go and take a look.  Well, next post, anyway.

UPDATE 2016:

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A year on, and I was lucky enough to find myself once more back at the Thiepval Memorial,…

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…on this occasion to lay a wreath on behalf of the Friends of Surrey Infantry Museum at the base of Panel 6D, where the names of the missing of The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment are inscribed (above & below).

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I remembered this time!

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There was time to contemplate the thousands upon thousands of names on the panels, and to point out a couple of points of interest; erased names where soldiers have been subsequently found and identified (above & below)…

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…and ongoing maintenance (above & below)…

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Panel 6C with, at the far end,…

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…the names of the missing of the East Surrey Regiment…

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…continued on Panel 6B.

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Unfortunately, once again the 18th Division Memorial proved out of reach…

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…although I did snap a quick shot out of the coach window as we left.  Better than nothing.

 

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2 Responses to Travels on the Somme Part One – The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing

  1. Ms Baldrick says:

    My royalties! My royalties!!
    Aah, good memories…

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